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Battling Imposter Syndrome By Understanding the Dunning Kruger Effect

avatarkaleb profile image Kaleb M ・5 min read

The tech industry, and more specifically the web development niche, lives up to the Heraclitus quote: "the only thing that is constant is change."

New libraries, new versions of popular libraries, language updates, spec changes, and new techniques or strategies that may or may not stick. Not only do are they rapid fire, web developers must keep up while evaluating which make sense in their current projects.

That's our job right? Certainly. But just by taking a look the handbook created by Front End Masters: 2019 Front end Handbook - you can easily see why the vast amount of knowledge required to be considered competent can feel overwhelming!

Thankfully we have a great community full of resources, tutorials, and training workshops to help out; still, the battle of imposter syndrome rages on for many in the tech industry.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

From Wikipedia: "a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud"."

In other words, someone who actually knows their field and has earned achievements due to their knowledge still feel like they are a fraud. They feel they don't actually deserve the award, because soon enough people will realize they don't know what they are talking about. Instead, the achieving individuals believe that they've convinced others they are more intelligent then they are, or have been very lucky in their achievements.

Origins

The imposter syndrome "was introduced in 1978 in the article "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes."

They interviewed 150 high achieving women who had been recognized in their field by peers.

After the initial research was completed, the two doctors continued to study this syndrome, leading to the discovery of it not only affecting high-achieving women, but many others as well!

6 Dimensions

In 1985, a follow up paper published by Dr. Clance introduced these 6 dimensions to measure imposter syndrome (one must have two of the dimensions to be diagnosed)

  1. The impostor cycle
  2. The need to be special or the best
  3. Characteristics of Superman/Superwoman
  4. Fear of failure
  5. Denial of ability and discounting praise
  6. Feeling fear and guilt about success

The Wikipedia entry mentions Caroline Webb suggesting that imposter syndrome increases the trajectory of one's career, due to the motivation one gains from it.

I believe that even if this may be true, it DOESN'T mean we can accept this and move on. This serious syndrome can cause depression, anxiety, and overall unhappiness in someone's life, who by all accounts should be PROUD of the hard-work and accomplishments instead.

Before heading into how we can combat this syndrome, let's first dive into the Dunning Kruger Effect.

The Dunning Kruger Effect

Dunning and Kruger in 1999 conducted a study: Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.

The study found that those who are incompetent tend to overestimate their abilities, while those who are competent underestimate them.

WAIT WHAT? Read that sentence again!

Sounds paradoxical right?

The easiest example for me to wrap my head around it was grammar.

Comparing two individuals: one individual who isn't considered competent in a language's grammar and another who is. They read the same paper to grade for a student. Due to the lack of knowledge of the grammar, it would be much harder to find all grammatical errors, and at the same time difficult to know you can't.

What does that sentence actually mean? It means that without a competent understanding of the language you can't catch all of the grammar mistakes, your knowledge isn't there to do so. They don't know enough to even understand that they don't know!

The Dunning Kruger Effect comes into play because between the two individuals, the one who is incompetent will overstate their abilities to catch all the errors, while the other who understands just how many different types of grammatical errors there can be, will underestimate it.

For us web developers, it follows that the more we learn about how the browser event loop works, the way React actually finds the differences to render in the DOM, or even that moment Kyle Simpson proves to us lexical scope exists in JS, so it is indeed compiled before interpreted, and many other technical pieces we are responsible to know, it starts to feel like we actually can't keep up. It feels like the more we learn, the more we uncover how much more there is to learn.

Do you see how this can cause an imposter syndrome dimensions to creep up?

By understanding this effect in addition to being aware of imposter syndrome, we are one step closer to handling it properly! Positivity has became a topic of discussion in the Web Dev community, especially after Wes B and Scott T talked about it on Syntax!

SN - I've added this to my mental model dictionary.

Managing Imposter Syndrome

In general I believe the following are helpful with handling imposter syndrome while understanding the Dunning Kruger Effect:

  1. Make a list of your accomplishments (track them real time when something good happens) to review, with a description of the effort you took to obtain it (if needed)
  2. Stress-relief activities such as meditation, yoga, tai-chi, or exercise classes / rec sports
  3. Put it in perspective - my father used to tell me that everyone has different skills in their life. I always wanted to be able to sing, he told me others want to be able to play sports like I do, in other words we all have gifts - so make sure you appreciate yours :)
  4. Understand the bell curve - bell curves show that most of us are indeed average, so by learning a bit more each day - you gradually move yourself farther and farther to the right!

Outside of these three, I believe the most important part in preventing or battling imposter syndrome comes from focusing to be a life-long learner. Take some time to yourself each day to read on new developments in your field, train on a technology you haven't yet used, all in an effort to continuously grow.

The Dunning Kruger Effect shows that the more you know, the more you feel like you don't - accept and thrive from this. It means progress. It means growth. It means you still have areas to grow in! For most of us, especially for me in web development, that means my passion can continue as my peak has yet to come!

Thanks for reading!

Kaleb McKelvey

Source: Imposter Syndrome on Wikipedia

Discussion

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mortoray profile image
edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

It's important to remember that these psychological effects are statistical effects, ideally from an unbiased population. The moment you are aware of the effect, you can use its conclusions to guide your own self judgement.

It is possible to be bad an understand you're bad at something. It's possible to be good at something and understand you're good at something.

The purpose of understanding psychological biases is to combat that when judging ourselves, and others.

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Kaleb M Author

Nicely put! I agree that you can judge yourself as objectionably as possible to determine how good you are.

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differentsmoke profile image
Pablo Barría Urenda

Unpopular opinion:

There is no such thing as "impostor syndrome", at least not anymore. I didn't know it originated from the first generation of highly successful professional women, and I totally buy that they would have a real version of it, with all the stuff they had to deal with. But nowadays? Impostor syndrome is just a scapegoat for a societal ill.

We live in a society where having a realistic, cautious assessment of one's own skills is perceived as a condition. It is not. It is the reasonable attitude to have. It is the respectful attitude to have. It is the honest attitude to have, towards our fellow human beings.

I appreciate the tone of your article, and I don't think I'm contradicting any of its claims, except for shifting the perspective on the issue: I believe it is important that we realize that when "managing impostor syndrome", we are not dealing with a defect in ourselves, but adjusting to a widespread flaw of society, and preventing it from hurting us. And it is important that we learn how to manage it, but, ultimately, we also have to push back, otherwise we'll always be on the defensive (and the Dunning-Kruger types will keep rising through the ranks).

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crazytim profile image
CrazyTim

Amazing perspective, thanks!

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tommygebru profile image
tommy

Very cool article do you think these methods are demonstrated in the hiring process at all. Ive been trying to get entry level work as a Dev or support dev for a few years now. I feel as though I'm constantly being passed up for entry level positions in SF. Also those who do get hired are they overqualified for the same positions, do they have college degrees and 5-10 years experience for a role that requires none?

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jeffreychung profile image
Jeff

I think the easiest way to get a job is through networking through other hobbies or adventure type experiences in a big city. Riding motorcycles, being a gun collector, paragliding lessons in Daly City, group hiking, cycling, hip hop dance class, museum tours, quilt making, duck hunting, wine tasting while learning how to paint portraits, anything where passionate people recharge their batteries in groups.

Depending on your age, the majority of people who participate in these group activities are going to be people with professional careers, managers, directors, friends/relatives with a big shot or some type of hiring authority. And it's not awkward or unusual to talk about job stuff because in a city like SF, people are going to talk about the thing that consumes 80% of their lives.

You have to treat networking just like a job or exercising...it's all work you have to invest effort into... If nothing else, it's a fun and healthy way to live so there's no real downside.

Trying to land a coveted position with no referral or connection to the company has got to be tough.

And you better know software development like you know your wife's body.

I'm recommending networking because I think the majority of the hiring of smart people is through referrals. Lots of programmers make it to age 50 without ever having had to even put together a resume in many cases.

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mortoray profile image
edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

Use bravado and exaggeration when doing an interview. Since you are probably under-representing yourself now, by going over-the-top (in your eyes), you'll likely provide a more realistic image of yourself. It likely won't even be seen as excessive in the eyes of the interviewer.

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michaelrice profile image
Michael Rice

This is a really intriguing point.

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avatarkaleb profile image
Kaleb M Author

Thanks for reading Tommy.

I can't comment much on the SF hiring process, because I've never went through one of them. What I can say is that interviewing for tech positions are difficult - it is unfortunate, but true.

My advice would be to consider the company that you're applying for - is it a top company with the top talent across the world? If you are applying to Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and/or Microsoft, you have fierce competition! You can take a look at hackerrank.com, try a hard problem, and determine pretty easily if you're ready for that competition or not.

If possible, if apply for a smaller company, take time to learn about them, practice your interview skills, have your portfolio ready, and show them that even without experience you can do the job they need help doing. In many places, you are a sought out resource!

Interviews are tough because there are different people asking questions, each with their own biases, ideas of the job, and standard they are looking for. Dunning Kruger can definitely cause them to overlook knowledge that should be known vs deep knowledge depending on experience level. There is a notion of forgetting what it's like to be outside of the tech or company looking in for someone who has been inside for a long time. My mentor always told us, if you don't get the job, it doesn't always mean you aren't good enough, it might just mean that job wasn't for you - meaning you might not have fit in and hated it anyways.

If you have any questions about preparing for an interview or anything like that I am definitely open to helping answer any of them!

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Michael Stelly

I lived silently with and had no clue about, this "syndrome" for decades. A few years back, I heard about imposter syndrome for the first time. The effect on me was nothing short of miraculous and instantaneous. This is not hyperbole. I went from dread to calm seemingly in moments. It all finally made sense. The epiphany washed all the years of "apparent failure" away leaving me with a name for my demon.

It's difficult to put into words the watershed effect this knowledge had on me, but it still plays out in my everyday work life. I see problems differently now. I'm not judging myself "less than" my colleagues anymore. I ask questions without fear of being viewed as an idiot. I approach problems knowing that no one else has the answer already.

I urge everyone who experiences IS to "name your demon". Naming it deprives it of the power over you allowing you to reclaim your mojo.

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Kaleb M Author

This comment made my day!

One of my mentors who was fabulous at connecting with people, providing life-long guidance, and supporting us through our own career journeys really changed my perspective on a key area of life.

She was 60+ and asked others for help. She had people who were part of her GE Leadership Program 10+ years ago still calling her for career advice or life advice. It was incredible.

One day I asked her - HOW? I can barely get people from college I interacted with to keep up with me. How did you do it for people so long ago?

Her response - I allow myself to be vulnerable.

And she really did - once I started learning more about it, it was really helpful to my friendships as well. We live in an era of social media and perfection - vulnerability means you trust people and can ask for help - the bonds strengthen from it :)

Apologies for the rambling but I was so happy to hear you grew, and still are growing as you succeed at work !

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Jacob Paris

If you're feeling insecure about your accomplishments, that's a good thing. The people who suck don't know they suck. They think they're fucking awesome, and they'll tell everyone who will listen. Understanding your shortcomings is the only way to plan your improvement-cycle.

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Kaleb M Author

I love that you added in the improvement-cycle. I really think self-awareness helps to show you what to learn next! Thanks for the comment!

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liloo2040 profile image
Elodie | DIY Developer

Great article! Thank you! I've been through this syndrome during my coding bootcamp (that lasted 5 months) and it hurt me a lot. Now, with perspective and time, I know I had to go through that and I overcame it (mostly).

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Kaleb M Author

Thank you!!

How's everything going now?

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Elodie | DIY Developer

Imposter syndrome still here, but I try not to see it as a bad thing, I think that when you want to make things right, sometimes, it's good to question yourself because you want to make a great work. I prefer underestimating myself and questioning myself than thinking that I know everything and not making a good job. But it you think that you don't need to question yourself and you're overestimate yourself, that's not good.That's what I liked in your article too.

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Kaleb M Author

That's true, the balance between the two is a tough thing to manage at times. Keep grinding and learning every day!

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Kaleb M Author

Hi Rob,

I'm delighted to hear that this article will help them, and am thankful to you for reading + passing it along to him.

I believe that part of the study for Dunning Kruger had two parts:

  1. Those who were incompetent rated themselves as having better scores on the exam
  2. Those who were competent rated themselves lower than their actual scores on the exam

The reason given for group #2 was because the more expertise you develop in an area of study, the more you learn that you don't know and can recognize it based on knowing the areas you do.

The more you dive into web development, you begin to realize just how much more there is you can learn.

As far as React, the Github stars and popularity can speak for itself - if that declines - adapt we shall :). Kyle Simpson may have low work experience but when it comes to writing a book with the nuances of JS (outside of his opinions), you can still learn quite a bit about the langauge. He's using the standards as a guide, diving in with examples, and explains it well in my humble opinon. Does that mean I'll be listening to him for career advice or architecting a JS app? Probably not, but I can definitely vouch for his explaining complex JS topics for my better comprehension.

I understand like all books or people, no one is forced to read or learn from them, or even agree with them. Some people absolutely adore Uncle Bob, while others think he's full of it. Such is the field we have chosen and why I love learning about it more and more each day!

Thanks again !

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Michael Rice

I've thought about this problem quite a bit myself, but not in any academic kind of way.

Personally, I think part of it is that we feel like we need to "fit in" to a team or organization, which is to say we don't feel like we "belong" there unless we meet some kind of undefinable standard.

And worse, I think many of us in this business feel this way so we kind of unintentionally do it to each other.

If I think back to decades ago, when I was a waiter in a restaurant or even washing cars in high school, I felt like I was part of team. In tech, that feeling isn't natively built into the job, so we have to work extra hard to create a sense of belonging not only among each other but with ourselves as well.

All I can say is, I'm with you. And I feel like this dev.to community is with you too :-)

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Kaleb M Author

That's a great point! I really enjoy team outings or having video game Fridays late afternoons. I'm with you also - thank you for reading!

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chdevelop profile image
CH Development

Speaking from experience having had impostor syndrome myself. I think it is not necessarily a bad thing depending on your point of view. Impostor syndrome is what motivated me to learn more and become better at what I do. At the end of the day it disappeared when I got more confident in myself and my programming abilities.

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Kaleb M Author

Yes agreed! I feel like the syndrome is more geared to those who are truly astonishing in their field, their awards and research prove it, yet they still feel that they don't know anything so people may find out they are a fraud.

There's a big different in feeling like you don't know things and understanding there's more to learn, but imposter syndrome can be a very serious condition for those who are at the top tier in their industry, yet feel like they shouldn't be.

Awesome to hear that you became a better programmer because of your feelings of imposter syndrome !

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SpaceAgeBonobo

Very valuable angels on self-insight & motivation.

As Russell said, the stupid have confidence, the wise are always in doubt.

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Adam Crockett

Going through the, holy shit I'm middle weight and my knowledge is slipping phase.

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Kaleb M Author

That happens to me every once in awhile too! How do you typically get through these phases?

I like to jot down things I've did in the past that led to growth and learning new things, books I've read, and remembering that one can only learn so much every day :)

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Adam Crockett

I dive into really hard code or mentor people at work. The later is a better idea because it really brings perspective, and they can teach you stuff too.

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Kaleb M Author

Makes sense - it is also really helpful to explain things at times, because then you find out how much you know or need to research :)

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Scott Hannen

I really hate trying to manage my Dunning and Kruger. I don't rate myself very highly, which means I'm probably better than I think. But once I think that then Dunning-Kruger goes against me.

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Kaleb M Author

Hahah! I totally understand.

Software engineering can be measured by your knowledge of the language you work in, the amount of stories / complexity of those stories you complete in a week, the bugs caused by git blame with your code, and your willingness to lead/mentor others.

I always try my best to keep learning, follow standards to the best of my ability, and remember that someone who is better at certain technologies might be so because of their focus allowed at the company they work for.

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Brandon

nice article, thanks.

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Valentino Gagliardi

You know, this is a fantastic, inspiring article! Thanks for sharing!

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Kaleb M Author

I'm very happy to hear you were inspired! Thank you for reading!!

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Kaleb M Author

You're welcome - def follow back and let me know what you find !

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Manuel Fernandez

Hi Kaleb! Just wanted to let you know that your article inspired me to share my own story, on how I came across this Dunning Kruger Effect (without knowing)... thank you very much! :)

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kinas profile image
Angelika Kinas

I love this! <3
Got also feedback that I have this syndrome. Now I know how to handle it better but this tactic sounds promising.
Will try to be more aware of it.

Keep going!

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Kaleb M Author

Good luck!

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Jaime Rios

Thanks for sharing. It is still a struggle at times.

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Kaleb M Author

Indeed - same for me :). Thank you for reading!